President Gotabaya Rajapaksa repeatedly made two requests of voters during his electioneering walkabouts. One was that they had given him 69 lakhs (6.9 million) of votes at the Presidential Election but now he wanted 79 lakhs (7.9 million) votes. The other was that he wants a two-thirds majority. He didn’t get his first wish, but has surely got his second and strategically more significant.
He got 6.8 million votes which is a fraction less than that which he polled in November 2019. His personal best remains the ruling party’s ceiling. The voters are certainly not dissatisfied by his performance but aren’t sufficiently high on the ‘Corona-superhero’ hype to boost their endorsement.
Five years ago, in 2015 August, Mahinda Rajapaksa had lost the presidential and parliamentary elections, was not the leader of the SLFP, had been denied the Leadership of the Opposition and did not lead a political party of his own. Five years later, Mahinda Rajapaksa is the ‘Rocky’ of South Asian politics.
Significantly, for the first time in four, he was sworn in as PM at a Buddhist temple, which was also a first for any Lankan PM. The new times are the very old times.
Fidel Castro defined the death of the USSR as “suicide, not homicide”. That applies to the UNP.
It is not the split in the UNP which spelt its doom. When SJB gets a hundred times more votes than the UNP, then it is hardly a ‘split’; it is an evaporation and a total transfer of what’s left of the UNP vote, including in Colombo, to the SJB.
What would have happened if the UNP had remained united? Given that it scored zero seats at this election, it is clear that there is no value that it could have added; nothing it could bring to the table except the accumulated discredit of the previous government and a quarter century of Ranil’s neoliberalism. If Sajith’s SJB didn’t exist as ‘Noah’s Ark’ or at least a lifeboat, Ranil would have taken everyone down with him in the flood.
Sri Lanka has seen mandates as striking as the SLPP’s, come and go with disastrous or desultory results: the 1970 election at which Mrs. Bandaranaike led her coalition to a two-thirds majority in parliament and promulgated a new Constitution, only to end up swept away by JR Jayewardene’s 5/6ths majority which promulgated another Constitution. In its turn JR’s UNP would have either been defeated by Mrs. Bandaranaike in 1988 or ended up literally exterminated as Ranil’s UNP has been electorally exterminated, were it not for Ranasinghe Premadasa’s populist candidacy of 1988.
President Chandrika’s 63% victory has not been equalled by any Lankan Presidential candidate before or since. It surpassed President GR’s mandate by at least 10% and was impressive by any international standard. She could have resolutely defeated the Tigers and built an enlightened, progressive society. Instead she chased the chimera of a non-unitary Constitutional ‘package’, relied on Norwegian peacemaking and incurred serial military disasters.
Finally, there was President Mahinda Rajapaksa’s victory of early 2010, followed by a Parliamentary Election which gave him and his partners 144 seats, making the twin victories uncannily similar to the impressive results just obtained in August 2020. The 2010 victories were upended in one term.
Sinhala trauma, existential angst
One cannot comprehend the 2019-2020 steamroller majority without understanding who and what it rolled over; who and what the voters chose to bury – and why. One could not understand its precursors 1956, 1970 and 2010 without understanding the target profile the UNP presented.
The new hyper-majority, which unprecedentedly empowers the Rajapaksa clan and the Sinhala supremacist agenda, can be traced to clusters of factors and tracked through specific periods.
The most proximate was ‘Yahapalanaya’ which contained within itself a grand asymmetry: it had not won the majority of the majority which happened to be Sinhala-Buddhist. It should have been mindful that in the Sinhala heartland it was on very thin ice indeed. Instead of consolidating and expanding its Sinhala base in concentric waves, it adopted a pronouncedly minoritarian profile from the get-go, starting with Ranil’s appointment of the expatriate Central Bank Chairman and the top appointee of Mangala Samaraweera to ICTA, and ending with the outline documents of a new constitution which dropped the definition ‘unitary’ in English and substituted ‘orumittanadu’ instead.
When Mahinda was defeated in January 2015, the Sinhala nation was in shock. The Sinhala people felt that Mahinda was their hero and he had not been displaced by their collective electoral consent. They felt it occurred without their warrant. This translated into a sense of conspiracy. It manifested itself in a spontaneous surge of Sinhala solidarity with Mahinda. Sinhala angst, guilt and outrage were the springboard of the rapid revival and resistance, starting with the Nugegoda rally of February 2015 and culminating in MR’s triumphant re-election last week.
Despite the hysterical caterwauling of the Ranil-Mangala UNP and ‘civil society’, that Maithripala Sirisena was responsible for the disaster of Yahapalanaya, as well as Ranil’s recent allegation during this campaign that Sajith had been politically soft on Sirisena while in Cabinet, the voters gave the SLFP 18 seats and top spot for Sirisena in his home base Polonnaruwa (beating an adversarial Roshan Ranasinghe), while they gave the UNP zero and ousted Ranil from his home base, the city of Colombo. The voters rightly blamed the Yahapalana disasters from the Central Bank bond scam to the Easter carnage, far more on Ranil and the UNP than on Sirisena and the SLFP, or Sajith and his SJB.
The 2015 Yahapalana experiment does not, by itself, explain the volume and velocity of Sinhala nationalism that made the two-thirds majority possible.
The ‘driver’ was the mismatch between the military defeat of Tamil separatism in May 2009 and the adventurist over-assertiveness of Tamil nationalism after and despite that defeat. The Tamil Diaspora was in denial about the defeat and that state of denial took the form, backstopped by inflows of funds, of encouragement of Tamil political personalities and parties to go on a permanent political offensive, abandoning the framework of and pressing beyond the 13th Amendment in talks with President MR in 2011. This was mightily compounded after 2013 by Chief Minister Wigneswaran’s provocative political discourse and behaviour. This behaviour swung the balance of opinion in Sinhala society, from settling Tamil grievances by negotiated political accommodation based on devolution, to unilateral imposition of a post-war order.
At the dawn of Yahapalanaya, Sumanthiran trumpeted it as proof that the minorities had political weight equal to the majority – to Sinhala ears, the victory of the 50:50 demand of GG Ponnambalam. Ex-President Kumaratunga’s SJV Chelvanayakam address identified the main problem as “Sinhala political monopoly” and the main goal as the dismantling of that political monopoly. Yahapalanaya state media and supportive ‘civil society’ lustily disseminated these ideas in an orgy of nihilism towards the war, the Lankan state, and the Sinhalese majority.
To the collective Sinhala psyche, it appeared as if the fellow-travellers of Prabhakaran, fronted by those Sinhalese who had appeased and collaborated with Prabhakaran, would have a greater hold on political power and the state than would the Sinhala nation that comprised the overwhelming majority, which had resisted, sacrificed and defeated armed separatism. An effort appeared underway to overturn the military victory by political means, demonise and vilify the victorious war and the side that won it, install the losers as political winners, and move towards dismantling the unitary state the military fought for – making for future separatism. As with the neoliberal slide in Yeltsin’s Russia in the 1990s, national, social and state ‘snapback’ was inevitable.
The Sinhalese felt an existential threat and turned to Mahinda Rajapaksa who had saved them before. But with his second defeat at the August 2015 Parliamentary Election, word travelled on the temple network MR had operated on after his defeat – and the word was ‘Gotabaya’. He alone could be guaranteed to generate, by taking it the next level, that enhanced Sinhala swing which could offset the entrenched minority support for the UNP. It was a Fox News/Trump candidacy moment.
The Gotabaya succession had been in gestation during MR’s second term, hence the launch of the volume with the hyperbolic title “Gota’s War” (2012), but it took Ranil-Mangala-Chandrika discourse and policy direction within the Yahapalanaya administration to give it the traction needed for the candidacy and victory.
The role of the ex-military brass was crucial. They saw in Ranil Wickremesinghe, the leader who had called off an LRRP hit on Prabhakaran, arrested Military Intelligence officers, entered a lopsided ceasefire agreement, allowed the LTTE back into Jaffna, permitted a Tiger buildup around Trincomalee harbour – and this time around, endorsed a self-hating Geneva resolution and a non-unitary draft Constitution.
The confluence of the Sinhala masses of the heartland (represented by Mahinda Rajapaksa), the monks, and the ex-military brass (around Gotabaya), created the hegemonic social bloc of today. It is quite determined never to experience, permit or leave room for the humiliating experiences the Sinhala majority was put through. It will therefore demolish every reform ‘tunnel’ that makes such traumatic incursion possible and build a wall and moat around Sinhala political power, promulgating a new Constitution which changes power-relations so that hierarchy is inscribed, full-spectrum Sinhala-Buddhist domination entrenched and its ideology driven deep, and minorities permanently marginalised by the truncation of proportional representation, restoration of a high cut-off point, and ethnic gerrymandering (‘re-demarcation’) of electorates.
An uppity Chief Minister like Wigneswaran will cease to be possible once the 13th Amendment is castrated, the power of the Governor is boosted, ex-military governors appointed, and devolved land annexed.
The ITAK/TNA’s failed constitutional reform overreach and Wigneswaran’s ‘developmental boycottism’ has revived avatars of Chelliah Kumarasuriyar and Alfred Duraiappah in the North. As for my old comrade Douglas Devananda though, I wonder how this longest-standing defender of 13A, will help provide the two-thirds majority for its weakening.
The regime gleefully believes in the Trump-Jared Kushner-Netanyahu formula (for the Palestinians), of the trade-off of political self-identity and territorial autonomy claims in return for development funding. Bottom-line: now the Tamils can be bought off, and the recalcitrant, bludgeoned.
The assumption is that contrary to Subramaniya Bharathi’s great poem, Tamils will now be ready to “give up the sun in the sky and live by the light of fireflies” or “sell their eyes for a beautiful painting” – and “Vande” (worship) the Sinhala “Matharam” as well as the Sinhala Emperor.
The sole salvation for the Tamils is to apply the written advice that Lord Soulbury gave C. Sunderalingam in 1964. All their political representatives must ally with and support Sajith Premadasa and mount a defence of the 13th Amendment. He is the only southern political leader who stands by it (the JVP and FSP are non-committal).
When the USSR imploded, the US was the sole superpower. The triumph was hailed by columnist Charles Krauthammer in the famous phrase “The Unipolar Moment”. Francis Fukuyama invoked Hegel and Nietzsche to simultaneously celebrate and mourn ‘The End of History’. Few figured that moment would be as fleeting as it turned out to be, and that History would return. So shall it be with the unipolar moment of Sinhala-Buddhist hegemony.
A near-universally desirable Democratic victory in the USA this November cannot restore minoritarian neoliberal-globalism on this island, crushed as it was by voters.
Just as that ideology was completely out of joint with national reality, Gotabayan Sinhala ultra-nationalism will find itself no less out of joint with emerging, evolving international reality.
Sinhala-Buddhist ultra-nationalism is as convinced in 2020 as cosmopolitan neoliberal-globalism was in 2015, that the ‘end of history’ has arrived with its victory. Sinhala supremacists think history has ended with the triumph of the Mahavamsa. They confuse the dominant mythos of the island’s history, with world history; local dynamics with global dynamics; and regard the smaller internal aspect – the particular – as having a greater shaping impact and determining role than the larger external environment – the totality.
Conflating neoliberalism with globalisation, Sinhala supremacists oppose both.
‘Gotabayanism’ – part uber-Trumpian, part ‘Eastworld’, all uber-hawk – will encounter the post-Trump reformatted and rebooted global matrix. President GR should check out from where Biden’s superlative Vice-Presidential choice got a name so familiar to South Asian ears: Kamala. We may be lucky enough to have the first US Vice-President (and in time, the first US President) with a South Asian (maternal) background.
From Sinhala nationalism’s encounter with the outside world must arise a transcendence, a new synthesis. Way before the 2020 Gotabaya government or even the 2015 Yahapalanaya one, I had articulated on the record, a paradigm that to my mind, serves that need:
“…The New Patriotism or New Nationalism will have to be authentically different from that of the [Rajapaksa] regime in that it will have to be smart instead of smug or surly; meritocratic instead of clan-centric; more liberal-democratic and open rather than quasi-authoritarian, hyper-securitised and militaristic; economically social democratic rather than oligarchic and crony capitalistic; modern, forward-looking and youth-oriented rather than culturally traditionalist, conventional and archaic; realist in outlook and attitude rather than paranoid and delusional; open and internationalist rather than narcissistic and xenophobic; progressive centrist in ideology rather than the regime’s neoconservative populist; and above all, pluralist and inclusive in ethno-religious terms rather than exclusionary, assimilationist or majoritarian-hegemonistic.” (‘A Winning Coalition will have to be Patriotic’, The Nation, ‘Lens’, Sunday, November 17th 2013, p5.)
The Resistance: The New Opposition
Lenin said that “anarchism is the price the working-class movement pays for the sin of opportunism”. ‘Illiberal democracy’ is the price the democratic movement pays for the sins of neoliberal democracy. In the rubble, the only alternative left standing – the sole national, democratic counterweight – is the SJB led by Sajith Premadasa.
On an uneven, inhospitable playing field, Sajith’s SJB has displayed the most rapid rate of acceleration – from conception and launch to electoral achievement and parliamentary status – of any political formation in Lankan history.
The drop in his vote in comparison with his own performance at the Presidential election was natural in that the ‘telephone’ was unfamiliar, the campaign not as extensive as that of November 2019 (due to COVID-19 restrictions), the incumbent president was adversarial, and a degree of contraction is attendant upon the birth of the new. Having founded the SLFP in 1951, SWRD’s party clocked a mere 15% at the general election of 1952, far less than Sajith’s SJB achievement in under half the time.
Thanks to Sajith Premadasa there is a New Opposition, which is neither the federalist TNA nor the emaciated Elephant bearing the burden of its anti-national, elitist sins.
Sajith himself has accumulated unprecedented political combat experience, against Goliath-figures Gotabaya (at the last election) and Mahinda (at this one). This gladiatorial ‘blooding’ will hold him in good stead, come 2024/5.
Basil Rajapaksa’s reference to The Terminator went global. I’d add that with Skynet having established its supremacy over the island, Sajith Premadasa is John Connor.